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Chapter 1

_Childhood_

PLACE OF BIRTH--CHARACTER OF THE DISTRICT--TUCKAHOE--ORIGIN OF
THE NAME--CHOPTANK RIVER--TIME OF BIRTH--GENEALOGICAL TREES--MODE
OF COUNTING TIME--NAMES OF GRANDPARENTS--THEIR POSITION--
GRANDMOTHER ESPECIALLY ESTEEMED--"BORN TO GOOD LUCK--SWEET
POTATOES--SUPERSTITION--THE LOG CABIN--ITS CHARMS--SEPARATING
CHILDREN--MY AUNTS--THEIR NAMES--FIRST KNOWLEDGE OF BEING A
SLAVE--OLD MASTER--GRIEFS AND JOYS OF CHILDHOOD--COMPARATIVE
HAPPINESS OF THE SLAVE-BOY AND THE SON OF A SLAVEHOLDER.


In Talbot county, Eastern Shore, Maryland, near Easton, the
county town of that county, there is a small district of country,
thinly populated, and remarkable for nothing that I know of more
than for the worn-out, sandy, desert-like appearance of its soil,
the general dilapidation of its farms and fences, the indigent
and spiritless character of its inhabitants, and the prevalence
of ague and fever.

The name of this singularly unpromising and truly famine stricken
district is Tuckahoe, a name well known to all Marylanders, black
and white. It was given to this section of country probably, at
the first, merely in derision; or it may possibly have been
applied to it, as I have heard, because some one of its earlier
inhabitants had been guilty of the petty meanness of stealing a
hoe--or taking a hoe that did not belong to him. Eastern Shore
men usually pronounce the word _took_, as _tuck; Took-a-hoe_,
therefore, is, in Maryland parlance, _Tuckahoe_. But, whatever
may have been its origin--and about this I will not be
<26>positive--that name has stuck to the district in question;
and it is seldom mentioned but with contempt and derision, on
account of the barrenness of its soil, and the ignorance,
indolence, and poverty of its people. Decay and ruin are
everywhere visible, and the thin population of the place would
have quitted it long ago, but for the Choptank river, which runs
through it, from which they take abundance of shad and herring,
and plenty of ague and fever.

It was in this dull, flat, and unthrifty district, or
neighborhood, surrounded by a white population of the lowest
order, indolent and drunken to a proverb, and among slaves, who
seemed to ask, _"Oh! what's the use?"_ every time they lifted a
hoe, that I--without any fault of mine was born, and spent the
first years of my childhood.

The reader will pardon so much about the place of my birth, on
the score that it is always a fact of some importance to know
where a man is born, if, indeed, it be important to know anything
about him. In regard to the _time_ of my birth, I cannot be as
definite as I have been respecting the _place_. Nor, indeed, can
I impart much knowledge concerning my parents. Genealogical
trees do not flourish among slaves. A person of some consequence
here in the north, sometimes designated _father_, is literally
abolished in slave law and slave practice. It is only once in a
while that an exception is found to this statement. I never met
with a slave who could tell me how old he was. Few slave-mothers
know anything of the months of the year, nor of the days of the
month. They keep no family records, with marriages, births, and
deaths. They measure the ages of their children by spring time,
winter time, harvest time, planting time, and the like; but these
soon become undistinguishable and forgotten. Like other slaves,
I cannot tell how old I am. This destitution was among my
earliest troubles. I learned when I grew up, that my master--and
this is the case with masters generally--allowed no questions to
be put to him, by which a slave might learn his <27
GRANDPARENTS>age. Such questions deemed evidence of impatience,
and even of impudent curiosity. From certain events, however,
the dates of which I have since learned, I suppose myself to have
been born about the year 1817.

The first experience of life with me that I now remember--and I
remember it but hazily--began in the family of my grandmother and
grandfather. Betsey and Isaac Baily. They were quite advanced
in life, and had long lived on the spot where they then resided.
They were considered old settlers in the neighborhood, and, from
certain circumstances, I infer that my grandmother, especially,
was held in high esteem, far higher than is the lot of most
colored persons in the slave states. She was a good nurse, and a
capital hand at making nets for catching shad and herring; and
these nets were in great demand, not only in Tuckahoe, but at
Denton and Hillsboro, neighboring villages. She was not only
good at making the nets, but was also somewhat famous for her
good fortune in taking the fishes referred to. I have known her
to be in the water half the day. Grandmother was likewise more
provident than most of her neighbors in the preservation of
seedling sweet potatoes, and it happened to her--as it will
happen to any careful and thrifty person residing in an ignorant
and improvident community--to enjoy the reputation of having been
born to "good luck." Her "good luck" was owing to the exceeding
care which she took in preventing the succulent root from getting
bruised in the digging, and in placing it beyond the reach of
frost, by actually burying it under the hearth of her cabin
during the winter months. In the time of planting sweet
potatoes, "Grandmother Betty," as she was familiarly called, was
sent for in all directions, simply to place the seedling potatoes
in the hills; for superstition had it, that if "Grandmamma Betty
but touches them at planting, they will be sure to grow and
flourish." This high reputation was full of advantage to her,
and to the children around her. Though Tuckahoe had but few of
the good things of <28>life, yet of such as it did possess
grandmother got a full share, in the way of presents. If good
potato crops came after her planting, she was not forgotten by
those for whom she planted; and as she was remembered by others,
so she remembered the hungry little ones around her.

The dwelling of my grandmother and grandfather had few
pretensions. It was a log hut, or cabin, built of clay, wood,
and straw. At a distance it resembled--though it was smaller,
less commodious and less substantial--the cabins erected in the
western states by the first settlers. To my child's eye,
however, it was a noble structure, admirably adapted to promote
the comforts and conveniences of its inmates. A few rough,
Virginia fence-rails, flung loosely over the rafters above,
answered the triple purpose of floors, ceilings, and bedsteads.
To be sure, this upper apartment was reached only by a ladder--
but what in the world for climbing could be better than a ladder?
To me, this ladder was really a high invention, and possessed a
sort of charm as I played with delight upon the rounds of it. In
this little hut there was a large family of children: I dare not
say how many. My grandmother--whether because too old for field
service, or because she had so faithfully discharged the duties
of her station in early life, I know not--enjoyed the high
privilege of living in a cabin, separate from the quarter, with
no other burden than her own support, and the necessary care of
the little children, imposed. She evidently esteemed it a great
fortune to live so. The children were not her own, but her
grandchildren--the children of her daughters. She took delight
in having them around her, and in attending to their few wants.
The practice of separating children from their mother, and hiring
the latter out at distances too great to admit of their meeting,
except at long intervals, is a marked feature of the cruelty and
barbarity of the slave system. But it is in harmony with the
grand aim of slavery, which, always and everywhere, is to reduce
man to a level with the brute. It is a successful method of
obliterating <29 "OLD MASTER">from the mind and heart of the
slave, all just ideas of the sacredness of _the family_, as an
institution.

Most of the children, however, in this instance, being the
children of my grandmother's daughters, the notions of family,
and the reciprocal duties and benefits of the relation, had a
better chance of being understood than where children are
placed--as they often are in the hands of strangers, who have no
care for them, apart from the wishes of their masters. The
daughters of my grandmother were five in number. Their names
were JENNY, ESTHER, MILLY, PRISCILLA, and HARRIET. The daughter
last named was my mother, of whom the reader shall learn more by-
and-by.

Living here, with my dear old grandmother and grandfather, it was
a long time before I knew myself to be _a slave_. I knew many
other things before I knew that. Grandmother and grandfather
were the greatest people in the world to me; and being with them
so snugly in their own little cabin--I supposed it be their own--
knowing no higher authority over me or the other children than
the authority of grandmamma, for a time there was nothing to
disturb me; but, as I grew larger and older, I learned by degrees
the sad fact, that the "little hut," and the lot on which it
stood, belonged not to my dear old grandparents, but to some
person who lived a great distance off, and who was called, by
grandmother, "OLD MASTER." I further learned the sadder fact,
that not only the house and lot, but that grandmother herself,
(grandfather was free,) and all the little children around her,
belonged to this mysterious personage, called by grandmother,
with every mark of reverence, "Old Master." Thus early did
clouds and shadows begin to fall upon my path. Once on the
track--troubles never come singly--I was not long in finding out
another fact, still more grievous to my childish heart. I was
told that this "old master," whose name seemed ever to be
mentioned with fear and shuddering, only allowed the children to
live with grandmother for a limited time, and that in fact as
soon <30>as they were big enough, they were promptly taken away,
to live with the said "old master." These were distressing
revelations indeed; and though I was quite too young to
comprehend the full import of the intelligence, and mostly spent
my childhood days in gleesome sports with the other children, a
shade of disquiet rested upon me.

The absolute power of this distant "old master" had touched my
young spirit with but the point of its cold, cruel iron, and left
me something to brood over after the play and in moments of
repose. Grandmammy was, indeed, at that time, all the world to
me; and the thought of being separated from her, in any
considerable time, was more than an unwelcome intruder. It was
intolerable.

Children have their sorrows as well as men and women; and it
would be well to remember this in our dealings with them. SLAVE-
children _are_ children, and prove no exceptions to the general
rule. The liability to be separated from my grandmother, seldom
or never to see her again, haunted me. I dreaded the thought of
going to live with that mysterious "old master," whose name I
never heard mentioned with affection, but always with fear. I
look back to this as among the heaviest of my childhood's
sorrows. My grandmother! my grandmother! and the little hut, and
the joyous circle under her care, but especially _she_, who made
us sorry when she left us but for an hour, and glad on her
return,--how could I leave her and the good old home?

But the sorrows of childhood, like the pleasures of after life,
are transient. It is not even within the power of slavery to
write _indelible_ sorrow, at a single dash, over the heart of a
child.

_The tear down childhood's cheek that flows,
Is like the dew-drop on the rose--
When next the summer breeze comes by,
And waves the bush--the flower is dry_.


There is, after all, but little difference in the measure of
contentment felt by the slave-child neglected and the
slaveholder's <31 COMPARATIVE HAPPINESS>child cared for and
petted. The spirit of the All Just mercifully holds the balance
for the young.

The slaveholder, having nothing to fear from impotent childhood,
easily affords to refrain from cruel inflictions; and if cold and
hunger do not pierce the tender frame, the first seven or eight
years of the slave-boy's life are about as full of sweet content
as those of the most favored and petted _white_ children of the
slaveholder. The slave-boy escapes many troubles which befall
and vex his white brother. He seldom has to listen to lectures
on propriety of behavior, or on anything else. He is never
chided for handling his little knife and fork improperly or
awkwardly, for he uses none. He is never reprimanded for soiling
the table-cloth, for he takes his meals on the clay floor. He
never has the misfortune, in his games or sports, of soiling or
tearing his clothes, for he has almost none to soil or tear. He
is never expected to act like a nice little gentleman, for he is
only a rude little slave. Thus, freed from all restraint, the
slave-boy can be, in his life and conduct, a genuine boy, doing
whatever his boyish nature suggests; enacting, by turns, all the
strange antics and freaks of horses, dogs, pigs, and barn-door
fowls, without in any manner compromising his dignity, or
incurring reproach of any sort. He literally runs wild; has no
pretty little verses to learn in the nursery; no nice little
speeches to make for aunts, uncles, or cousins, to show how smart
he is; and, if he can only manage to keep out of the way of the
heavy feet and fists of the older slave boys, he may trot on, in
his joyous and roguish tricks, as happy as any little heathen
under the palm trees of Africa. To be sure, he is occasionally
reminded, when he stumbles in the path of his master--and this he
early learns to avoid--that he is eating his _"white bread,"_ and
that he will be made to _"see sights"_ by-and-by. The threat is
soon forgotten; the shadow soon passes, and our sable boy
continues to roll in the dust, or play in the mud, as bests suits
him, and in the veriest freedom. If he feels uncomfortable, from
mud or from dust, the coast is clear; he can plunge into <32>the
river or the pond, without the ceremony of undressing, or the
fear of wetting his clothes; his little tow-linen shirt--for that
is all he has on--is easily dried; and it needed ablution as much
as did his skin. His food is of the coarsest kind, consisting
for the most part of cornmeal mush, which often finds it way from
the wooden tray to his mouth in an oyster shell. His days, when
the weather is warm, are spent in the pure, open air, and in the
bright sunshine. He always sleeps in airy apartments; he seldom
has to take powders, or to be paid to swallow pretty little
sugar-coated pills, to cleanse his blood, or to quicken his
appetite. He eats no candies; gets no lumps of loaf sugar;
always relishes his food; cries but little, for nobody cares for
his crying; learns to esteem his bruises but slight, because
others so esteem them. In a word, he is, for the most part of
the first eight years of his life, a spirited, joyous,
uproarious, and happy boy, upon whom troubles fall only like
water on a duck's back. And such a boy, so far as I can now
remember, was the boy whose life in slavery I am now narrating.

Frederick Douglass

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